How Competitive Eating Works

Competitive Eating Pictures

Competitve Eating
Photo courtesy Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs
Takeru Kobayashi at the 2005 Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Contest. Kobayashi earned his sixth straight title during the 2006 contest. See more competitive eating pictures.

Welcome to a world­ populated by colorful characters like Crazy Legs Conti, the Black Widow, and the Tsunami. Here, pint-sized eaters compete side-by-side with hefty gurgitators, and a small woman named Sonya rules with an iron stomach.

In this article, we'll meet some of the biggest names in competitive eating, try to figure out why people hold these contests, and learn how the world's top eaters manage to pack it all in.

The Backstory
Informal eating contests probably date back thousands of years. The International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) observes that "30 hungry Neanderthals in a cave" fighting over a rabbit constitutes the first instance of competitive eating [ref]. Organized eating contests became a traditional part of state and county fairs throughout the United States in the early 20th century. These contests often focused on creating a messy spectacle, such as eating pies without using your hands, rather than speed eating.

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The IFOCE was formed in 1997 to unify the many eating competitions held around the world. IFOCE rules regulate eating methods, safety standards and a growing circuit of regional qualification contests. In the past some contests were more about seeing who could eat a certain amount of food the fastest. Today's IFOCE competitions are judged by the amount eaten within a set period of time, traditionally 10 or 12 minutes. The IFOCE also tracks world records and ranks the world's top eaters.

­IFOCE safety rules require that competitive eaters be at least 18 years old, and they strongly discourage any kind of training or practice at home, insisting that competitive eating is only safe in a controlled environment.

Nathan's Famous
Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs began holding Fourth of July hot dog-eating contests on Coney Island in 1916. Today this contest is considered the Super Bowl of competitive eating, and is also the World Hot Dog-Eating Championship event for the IFOCE.
Hot Dogs

The rules that govern an eating contest are pretty simple. The food to be eaten is either weighed, like cabbage, or cut into uniform pieces, in the case of a pizza-eating contest, for example. No one is allowed to start eating until an official gives the signal. Competitors can eat the food however they want, either breaking it into pieces or just shoving it in. They can dip the food into a liquid (usually water) to make it softer. If the food has different parts, the parts do not have to be eaten together. For example, hot dogs can be eaten separately from their buns. When time expires, any food that is already in the contestant's mouth counts as eaten as long as he or she eventually swallows it.

There's one rather gross question everyone asks about competitive eating -- what happens if someone vomits? IFOCE rules are very clear, though they are very delicate about the terms that they use to describe someone throwing up. Anyone who suffers "a Roman incident" is disqualified if the result of that incident touches the plate or table. Once time has expired, competitors can rid themselves of the massive amount of food they've just eaten however they like.

Instant replay is not used in IFOCE contests -- the ruling of the judges at the time is considered final. This can sometimes lead to controversy. In 2002, record holder Takeru Kobayashi reportedly vomited some hot dog at the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest, but held most of it back with his hands until time ran out.

Prizes for these competitions vary from nothing but a title to a few thousand dollars. It depends on the organizers and promoters of the specific event. Some events have sponsors who donate prizes, and well-known competitors will often be paid to travel the world giving competitive eating exhibitions.

In the next section, we'll see how they manage to eat all that food.


Competitive Eating Secrets

Eric 'Badlands' Booker
Photo courtesy IFOCE
Eric "Badlands" Booker

Competitive eaters have a few secrets that they have developed over the years to help them stuff food into themselves a little bit faster. The most basic is the water dunk. Virtually every competitor keeps a cup of water at the table to dip the contest food. This softens and lubricates the food, allowing them to chew it faster and swallow it more easily. Technically any liquid could be used, but anything that has calories will make it harder to eat more in the long run.

Another key technique is to break the food into smaller pieces before eating it. This allows competitors to fit more food into their mouths at once, and also cuts down on chewing time. Kobayashi's "Solomon Technique" (also referred to as "Japanesing") involves breaking a hot dog in half and then stuffing both halves into the mouth at once. Otherwise, it would be difficult to fit an entire hot dog at once because of the length. Almost all serious eaters eat hot dogs and buns separately.

Other than those basic tactics, competitive eating is largely a matter of willpower. Competitors must fight their gag reflexes and their stomach's natural reaction to such a large amount of food being dumped into it very quickly (what the IFOCE refers to as "urges contrary to swallowing").

Sonya Thomas
Photo courtesy IFOCE
Sonya Thomas eats one large meal each day,
usually from a buffet

Too Much of a Good Thing?
Drinking a large amount of water in a short period of time can dilute the electrolytes in your blood, which can lead to a loss of heart, muscle and brain function. Under most conditions, drinking 8 to 16 ounces of water per hour should be enough to keep you hydrated [ref].

It is possible to train ahead of time for an eating contest, although the IFOCE does not recommend it. Competitors can train their brains to ignore the "full" feeling (actually the stomach muscles relaxing as they stretch) by repeatedly filling the stomach with large meals or through water training. Water training requires drinking an entire gallon of water in 30 seconds. The water stretches out the stomach. Supposedly, this makes it easier to down food in huge quantities. Neither of these activities is healthy. The water exercise can be very dangerous, resulting in perforations of the stomach lining and water intoxication, which is potentially fatal.

Next, we'll look beyond training and tactics to see what makes the world's top eaters truly amazing.


The Best Competitive Eaters in the World

The Incredible Edible Egg
The hard-boiled egg eating contest is one of the most memorable scenes in the 1967 Paul Newman film "Cool Hand Luke." In the film Luke wagers that he can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour. He manages the feat after a short training period, which consists of stomach stretching and speed-eating tests. In light of the Black Widow's record, Luke's isn't all that impressive.

Just who are the world's best eaters? In IFOCE parlance, they are known as gurgitators. Although you might expect these super-eaters to be huge, they range from giants like "Hungry" Charles Hardy, at 340 pounds, to the Black Widow, Sonya Thomas, at around 100 pounds.

Here are a few of the top gurgitators:

  • Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi
    The reigning champion of worldwide eating, especially hot dogs, the Nagasaki, Japan native holds the world record for hot dog eating - 53 and 3/4 hot dogs with buns in 12 minutes in July 2006. The muscular Kobayashi only weighs about 160 pounds, although he eats such vast amounts of food that his weight fluctuates greatly after a contest. He once consumed almost 18 pounds of cow brains in 15 minutes.

  • Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas
    Although she is of Korean ancestry, Virginian Sonya Thomas is considered America's greatest hope of reclaiming the number one ranking from the Japanese. Thomas, who weighs about 100 pounds, holds numerous records throughout the United States, filling herself with ravioli, hamburgers, chicken wings and grilled cheese sandwiches. She even put Cool Hand Luke to shame, eating 65 hard-boiled eggs in under seven minutes.

  • Crazy Legs Conti
    Crazy Legs Conti
    Photo courtesy Crazy Legs Conti
    Crazy Legs Conti

    This dreadlocked New York City native was a fan of eating contests before entering IFOCE competition in 2002. A champion oyster eater, Conti was recently the subject of a documentary film called "Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating."

  • Oleg Zhornitskiy
    A Ukrainian eater known for his fashion sense and excellent physical condition, Zhornitskiy is a former Buffalo chicken wing champion and holds one of the more bizarre IFOCE records: he once ate four 32-ounce bowls of mayonnaise in eight minutes.

  • Eric "Badlands" Booker
    The 420-pound Booker is not only one of the top eaters in the United States, holding records in doughnuts, candy bars, and pumpkin pies, but he has also released a rap album and works as a New York City subway conductor.
    Cookie Jarvis
    Photo courtesy IFOCE
    Cookie Jarvis

  • Cookie Jarvis
    Another New Yorker, 410-pound-Jarvis has long been considered the eater to beat in the United States. He holds records in pasta, ice cream and other events.

  • Hirofumi Nakajima, Orio Ito, and Kazutoyo Arai
    These three eaters were among the first Japanese to compete in American events, stunning American eaters and shattering records in the early 1990s.

  • Peter Washburn
    One of the old greats, Washburn held the world hot dog eating record for many years in the 1960s, downing 18 and ½ dogs.

It's easy to see from this cast of characters that there is no one type of person that excels at competitive eating. While many of the top eaters are lightweights with petite bodies, gurgitators weighing more than 400 pounds compete in the upper echelons as well. However, competitive eating fans and competitors alike have plenty of theories about what constitutes a "champion" body type.

Sonya Thomas winning the 2005 Johnsonville Brats contest
Photo courtesy IFOCE
Sonya Thomas winning the 2005 Johnsonville Brats contest

When small eaters like Thomas and Kobayashi first arrived, some eaters developed the theory that fat actually hinders competitive eating. The idea was that a lot of fat around the mid-section made it too difficult for the stomach to expand. This theory was originally proposed by eater Ed Krachie. His paper on the subject, "Can Abdominal Fat Act as a Restrictive Agent on Stomach Expansion? An Exploration of the Impact of Adipose Tissue on Competitive Eating," was rejected by numerous scholarly journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine. However, a 2003 Popular Science article supports the theory: "The size of the stomach at rest is inconsequential. All that matters is the stomach's ability to expand, to adapt itself to the amount of food being shoved down the esophagus. A skinny man's stomach has little fat to push against it and fight the food for space" [ref]. Some eaters believe that a muscular abdomen hinders stomach expansion as well, although Kobayashi's muscular body would seem to contradict this theory.

Next we'll see some of the records held by competitive eaters.


Competitive Eating Record Holders

Here are some of the unique and amazing records held by competitive eaters in IFOCE-sanctioned events.

Statistics from IFOCE Records

Next we'll see what it's like to attend a competitive eating event.


Attending a Competitive Eating Event

You might be wondering, "What is it like to actually attend one of these events?" A chicken wing eating contest at the fourth annual National Chicken Wing Festival in Buffalo, New York provided an opportunity to find out.

IFOCE chairman George Shea
Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski
George Shea, chairman of the IFOCE

A large crowd had gathered around the stage when IFOCE chairman and MC George Shea started his introductions. Shea is part carnival barker, part preacher and part stand-up comedian as he sings the praises of the world's best gurgitators to the accompaniment of blaring rock music. It's important to understand that Shea and the eaters don't really take themselves too seriously, but part of the humor that underlines the whole event is that they pretend to take themselves really seriously. Shea called one competitor, "Jammin" Joe LaRue, "The Missing Link..not between man and ape, but between man...and God!" Sonya Thomas received a lengthy introduction that referred to her as "the essence of beauty...the shadow beneath the lotus." She then emerged from the crowd wielding a Chicken Sceptre while "Hell's Bells" by AC/DC blasted through the sound system.

Sonya Thomas
Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski
Sonya Thomas in action

The crowd and the press were both very excited about the event. People were wearing t-shirts featuring their favorite eaters, and some eaters received deafening ovations from the spectators. Photographers crawled all over the area where the eaters were positioned, so much so that it was difficult to actually see any of the contest. When Sonya Thomas arrived from an unexpected direction, photographers practically stampeded to try and get a good photo. Once she started eating, she was ringed by cameras, some of them just inches from her wing-sauce covered face.

Ultimately, the real entertainment value of one of these events comes from Shea, not the contest itself. Once the eating begins, there's not much to look at. It's actually kind of gross. But Shea stalks the stage, goading the eaters into ever greater feats of intestinal fortutide, cheering them on, and discussing common problems such as "the eight-minute wall" and "the meat sweats." His hyperbole is so over the top, you can't help but laugh.

Badlands Booker
Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski
Badlands Booker in action

For the record, Eric "Badlands" Booker won this event, upsetting Thomas, who finished second. Booker put away 137 wings (measured by weight) to Thomas' 127.

It's not all cookies, cakes, ice cream, hot dogs and glory. Let's look at the opposition to competitive eating.

Pontential Problems
Can competitive eating be harmful? Let's take a look at some numbers. At the extreme end of the spectrum, Kobayashi eats around 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Estimating 150 calories per dog and 100 calories per bun, Kobayashi consumes 12,500 calories in one sitting. As a point of reference, the USDA recommended caloric intake for an adult male is about 2,300 calories.

Competitors who don't reach Kobayashi's level still routinely down 18 to 25 dogs in one contest, which is more than 4,000 calories. It's easy to see that competitive eating is not the healthiest thing to do. That's not to mention the risk of choking or damaging the stomach by filling it beyond its natural "full" point. Some competitors do not digest what they eat at a contest -- they purge the contents of their stomachs via a "Roman incident." This isn't healthy either -- stomach acids from frequent vomiting can damage the esophagus and the enamel on teeth.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 11 million Americans suffer from bulimia or anorexia, while 25 million more suffer from bouts of binge eating [ref]. By glorifying the extreme eating necessary to compete in eating contests, competitive eating could be contributing to these problems. The training and competing patterns of competitive eaters could also be considered signs of an actual eating disorder.

For more information on competitive eating and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Bird, Patrick J., PhD. "You can drink too much water."
    University of Florida College of Health and Human
  • "Bizarre sports records." Kidzworld Sports Media.
  • Caple, Jim. "Competitive eating a man-eat-dog world."
    Page 2, ESPN Online.
  • Conti, Crazy Legs. "Stuff your face." Topic Magazine.
  • "Cool Hand Luke."
  • "Hot dog eating contest champion Takeru Kobayashi."
    Kidzworld Sports Media.
  • International Federation of Competitive Eating.
  • Neary, Lynn. "Interview with George Shea, chairman of the IFOCE."
    Talk of the Nation. NPR Online, July 4, 2005.
  • Rovell, Darren. "Accusations hurled at hot dog contest."
    Page 2, ESPN Online.
  • Simon. "Sonya Thomas spills her guts."
  • Sklar, Randy and Jason. "Champions of Cheese: Competitive Eating."
    Day to Day. NPR Online, February 18,